After a 2-0 start in the Big Ten, the No. 8-ranked Gopher men's basketball team takes to the road for their third conference match-up, Wednesday vs. No. 12 Illinois (8 p.m., Big Ten Network). GopherSports.com writer Jeff Fett gives fans a sneak peak at the Illini, who have started the season 14-2 (1-1 B1G).
Trevor Mbakwe and the Gophers travel to Illinois Wednesday for a match-up with the No. 12 Illini.
Big Ten Preview: Illinois
Head Coach: John Groce (1st season)
Last Year's Big 10 Record: 6-12
2012 Big Ten Record: 1-1 (W- Ohio State, L - Purdue)
Top 5 Leading Scorers: Brandon Paul-18.5 ppg; D.J. Richardson-10.6 ppg; Tracy Abrams-12.1 ppg; Tyler Griffey-8.7 ppg; Joseph Bertrand-9.3 ppg.
Top 5 Leading Rebounders: Brandon Paul-5.1 rpg; D.J. Richardson-4.7 rpg; Joseph Bertrand-4.5 rpg; Nnanna Egwu-4.3 rpg; Tracy Abrams-3.9 rpg.
Could this be the year Illinois finally grabs a Big Ten championship title? On paper, the Illini have everything going for them.
The Illini have a loaded backcourt. Seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and junior Joe Bertrand have led the way so far this season. The experience has led the Illini to just one loss in the non-conference season so far.
In the frontcourt, gone is Myers Leonard to the NBA draft, but the Illini have reloaded there. Seniors Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey have stepped up in Myers absence, and Nnanna Egwu is showing lots of promise in just his sophomore season.
Last season, Illinois had all of the pieces there as well, but stumbled down the stretch losing 12 out of their last 14 games. Head Coach Bruce Weber was fired, and Ohio Head Coach John Groce was brought into lead the team.
So far, the Illini have played consistent basketball this season. The only weakness this team appears to have is depth. They primarily have a seven-man rotation and in a grueling Big Ten season, one has to wonder if that will hold up come late February into March.
If early season success has anything to do with it, Illinois should be there at the end. The pieces are there for at least an NCAA tournament trip, if they can hold together will determine if they can grab a Big Ten championship.
The Big Ten conference season is underway. The Gophers opened with a win over Michigan State at Williams Arena. Up next is a date with Northwestern on Sunday, Jan. 6. The Wildcats open against No. 2 Michigan on Thursday, Jan. 3 at 6:00 p.m. on ESPN2. Gophersports.com men's basketball beat writer Jeff Fett takes a peak at Northwestern.
Big Ten Preview: Northwestern
Head Coach: Bill Carmody (Union College, '75) Career Record: 280-220 (17th season) Record at Northwestern: 188-195 (13th season)
Trevor Mbakwe and the No. 9 Gophers host Northwestern Sunday at 6 p.m.
2011-12 Big 10 Record: 8-10
Top Scorers: Reggie Hearn-14.5 ppg; Dave Sobolewski-11.3 ppg; Jared Swopshire-8.8 ppg; Alex Olah-7.2 ppg; Tre Demps-5.6 ppg.
Top Rebounders: Swopshire-6.0 rpg; Hearn-5.5 rpg; Olah-4.5 rpg;
Notable non-conference wins: TCU, Baylor, Illinois State
The biggest question for Northwestern is can they break the curse this year. Since the NCAA tournament started in 1939, they are the only team in a BCS conference to never have made a tournament appearance. They have also not won the Big Ten conference since 1933.
And so as the drought continues, there bid this year to get into the NCAA tournament took a big hit. Drew Crawford, who was second on the team in scoring and was an NBA draft prospect, is out for the year with a torn labrum.
Sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski and senior point guard Alex Marcotullio will now have to step up to take bigger roles in the offense.
The Wildcats will also rely on their revamped frontcourt consisting of Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire, TCU transfer Nikola Cerina and freshman Alex Olah.
Northwestern is one of the toughest teams to predict this season. With nice non-conference wins over Baylor and Illinois State, the Wildcats have set themselves up nicely to start the Big Ten season. Expect the Wildcats to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. If they can make a run in the Big Ten tournament, they could make a strong case to make a bid for the NCAA tournament.
On Dec. 31,
the Gophers open up the Big Ten season with #19 Michigan State at Williams
Arena. In preparation for the conference opener, Gophersports.com basketball beat
writer Jeff Fett will be doing previews of each of the teams in the conference.
Head Coach: Tom Izzo (Northern Michigan, '77) Record: 423-171 (18th season)
2012-13 Record: 11-2 2011-12 B1G Record: 13-5
Leading Scorers: Keith Appling-14.9 ppg; Gary
Harris-12.4 ppg; Branden Dawson-9.8 ppg; Derrick Nix-8.8 ppg; Adreian Payne-8.7
State has all of the tools to contend for yet another Big Ten title this
season, and should be in the mix to make its usual run in the NCAA tournament.
There is no
question this team has talent. It's backcourt combination of Keith Appling and
Gary Harris has been a strong point of the team so far. They are two of the
team's leading scorers and know how to find the team's low post scorers as
Down in the
post, Branden Dawson is back from an ACL injury and is playing well. Derrick
Nix and Adreian Payne have also provided a formidable frontcourt. Nix is the
reigning Big Ten Conference Player of the Week after his 25-point and 11-rebound
performance against Texas.
The Spartans have
also shown that they are also deep, having used a nine-man rotation this
Last season, All-American
Draymond Green led the Spartans, for the most part night in and night out. One question
for Michigan State entering the season was if it could find someone to take his
role. Is that Appling or someone else? I think that is still up for debate.
The Spartans have
made 15-straight NCAA appearances so a 16th is almost a certainty.
The Gopher men's basketball team will participate in a number of charitable activities in the community this holiday season.
University of Minnesota Men's Basketball coach Tubby Smith always stresses to his players that giving back to the community is extremely important. The basketball players, as well as all of the Golden Gopher student athletes, are heavily involved in the community thanks to programs headed up by Peyton Owens and Anissa Lightner in the Student-Athlete Affairs office here at the "U'.
Aside from that, Coach Smith, and the Tubby Smith Foundation, makes sure that giving back during the holiday season becomes a priority. This holiday season's theme will be "Ten Days of Holiday Giving". The schedule is below:
Day 1: Thursday, Dec. 13 - Donation of books to the Stillwater Public Library and its Holiday Children's Book Drive.
Day 2: Friday, Dec. 14 - Donation of children's winter jackets to the Minneapolis Salvation Army.
Day 3: Saturday, Dec. 15 - Donation of children's clothing for the Sabathani Community Center.
Day 4: Sunday, Dec. 16 - Donation of critical nursery needs to the Greater Minneapolis, Crises Nursery.
Day 5: Monday, Dec. 17 - Donation of children's clothing to Neighbors, Inc. as part of the Love Your Neighbor Holiday Program.
Day 6: Tuesday, Dec. 18 - Donation of children's clothing and baby supplies to People Serving People through the Holiday Helpers program.
Day 7: Wednesday, Dec. 19 - Donation of toys to KARE-11's Toys-4-Tots program.
Day 8: Thursday, Dec. 20 - Holiday shopping at Target for clothing for families of East Side Neighborhood Services.
Day 9: Friday, Dec. 21 - Donation of Wii video games to children at Amplatz Children's Hospital.
Day 10: Saturday, Dec. 22 - Donation of Self Care & Bath Kits to the Harriet Tubman Center.
The Tubby Smith Foundation's mission is to be a resource for children and charities that benefit children in the State of Minnesota, who demonstrate a need for financial assistance to improve their physical, mental, educational or overall well-being.
At No. 14 in the nation, the Golden Gopher basketball team currently holds its highest AP poll ranking in Tubby Smith's tenure as head coach. Minnesota moved up from the No. 21 slot it was in last week. The Gophers also made their first appearance of the season in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, checking in at No. 21.
The Gophers (8-1) entered the season outside the top 25, but earned respect of the voters after emerging from the Battle 4 Atlantis--arguably the toughest preseason tournament this year--with two wins and following up with a win at Florida State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Minnesota's highest ranking in the Smith era so far was 13th in the ESPN/USA Today poll on both Nov. 29, 2010, and Dec. 27, 2010. The Gophers spent 12 straight weeks in the top-25 polls during the 2010-11 seasons.
Some big challenges are coming, but the Gopher men's basketball team appears to be coming together as they prepare for a tough stretch of games where they'll challenge some of NCAA basketball's elite.
The Gophers are off to a 4-0 start this year. So far, the Gophers have been dominant, with their closest game by 15 points. Head coach Tubby Smith says the team is starting to bond.
"I feel good about where we are as far as the play of our players. I felt good about it for the last few years. I just want to make sure we stay healthy," Smith said. " We have a very unselfish team and we're playing together."
While the Gophers haven't been challenged just yet, the first few games have helped the team gel with each other as they prepare to do battle with some of the nation's top programs.
Trevor Mbakwe and the Gophers take on Duke this Thanksgiving.
The Gophers are hitting a stretch where starting Nov. 22 they will play eight games in their next two-and-a-half weeks.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Gophers will play in the Battle for Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. In their opening round game, the Gophers will take on #5 Duke.
The tournament also features 2012 NCAA tournament qualifiers in Missouri, Virginia Commonwealth University, Louisville and Memphis. Stanford and the University of Northern Iowa will also participate in the tournament.
The Gophers do not get much of a break after the weekend tournament. On Nov. 27, they will travel to Tallahassee to play Florida State. The game with the Seminoles is a part of the ACC/Big Ten challenge.
After a couple of home games, the Gophers go back on the road to Los Angles to face the University of Southern California Dec. 8.
The schedule gets a little easier after the Dec. 11 game against North Dakota State University. The Gophers do not play a game for 11 days.
Smith says he'd rather not take some of these long road trips after the tournament, but that's how the schedule falls.
"We'd rather not be going into these places to be honest with you, but that's how it fell with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge," Smith said. "It is compressing a lot of games in a short period of time. Unfortunately we have that issue with our academic calendar--so that's why were like that. We play one game in about 11 days. I don't think anybody else has that long a break in the country, so its a real challenge for us in the scheduling, so that's why you see us with so many games in such a short period of time."
On Sunday, Nov. 18, the Gophers take on the University of
Richmond at Williams Arena at 6 p.m. The Spiders are 3-0 so far this year. Gophersports.com basketball beat writer Jeff Fett Spoke with Spiders Assistant Head Coach Kevin McGeehan to
learn more about Richmond and what his concerns are about playing the Gophers.
Gophersports.com: Who's the star of your team---what will make this team succeed this
"Our best player is probably is Darien Brothers. He's a good shooter--like 6'2"
or 6'3" strong guard. He really shoots well from three.
"We have a couple of guys who can score from the perimeter--we're
a pretty good perimeter team. We have one returning big guy that's a very good
player---a strong interior kid--and then a bunch of young kids who are going to
be good players."
Gophersports.com: What kind of style does your team play?
"We like to share the ball and move a lot. We do a lot of
passing and cutting--keeping the court spread. We try to move a lot and take
advantage of space. I think we share the ball pretty well."
Gophersports.com: Are your goals lots of possessions or are you methodical in how you
handle the basketball?
"This year we've tried to make an emphasis of getting the
ball up quick and trying to score quicker. We feel like we have good wing
players that can run and make good decisions and score in transition, so we've
kind of made that a point of emphasis."
Gophersports.com: What are your concerns about playing the Gophers?
"I think they are talented at every position. It seems to be
that they have good depth right now---a lot of experience back. Anytime you
play a Big Ten team in particular, you know there's going to be physicality
playing there on the road. You have to be ready for all of that.
"We've played a lot of teams through the years---big teams
and in BCS conferences and I think that's one of the things you have to mentally
prepare for as you go into a game, where you know all those guys are big and
strong and physical and athletic. I think that's no exception with Minnesota
being like that."
Gophersports.com: Richmond is taking on some tough teams on the road, like Minnesota,
Kansas and Wake Forest. Why do you make your schedule this tough?
"I think the Atlantic 10 is a really good conference, you
know arguably better than some of the big BCS conferences pending on the year.
So game in and game out in the Atlantic 10 you are facing really good teams. There
are very few bad teams and so in order to prepare for league play---and then
hopefully we're thinking about the ultimate goal, the NCAA tournament, we're
trying to play the best schedule we can. I think the best way to do that is to
try to play some teams that are in that mix. Teams who are going to be
tournament teams or really good teams in BCS leagues."
Gophersports.com: You are off to a great start at 3-0 on the year. Have their been any
surprises you weren't expecting so far this year?
"I wouldn't say surprises. I would say some of the things
we've tried to emphasize you know in the off-season. We had a trip to Italy
during the summer, which allowed us to practice and compete overseas.
"Some of the things that we started to talk about and try to
implement there and in practice have shown up in the games, which is a good
sign. The things that are going to be points of emphasis are actually
manifesting themselves in the games. I think that's a good thing.
"Surprises, not really at this point. You know we were
hoping to come to Minnesota at 3-0 and that's where we are--so this is a really
good test for us."
Gophersports.com: Is there anything else you want us to know about the Richmond
basketball team or the University of Richmond?
"Richmond has a very rich tradition basketball wise. Two
years ago, we were in the Sweet 16. Going back to the 80's and parts of the
90's, Richmond has been really, really good at basketball.
"I think it's a unique place and a special place because its
an excellent academic institution where kids are going to class and working
hard in the classroom--having to balance academic life and athletics.
"You can concentrate more on basketball here. We're a small
school and everything's hard and kids have to show up and go to class all of
that stuff. So there's something unique and special about that in our guys
representing themselves well in the classroom and on the court."
The longer you miss someone, the more you appreciate it when they return. For fans of Golden Gopher men's basketball, it's been far too long since senior forward Trevor Mbakwe and sophomore forward Maurice Walker have played in a game.
Both players, of course, made appearances in each of Minnesota's two exhibitions during the past couple weeks. But, officially, tonight's 72-36 season-opening win against American University marked the first time in what has seemed like ages that the pair of Gopher big men had donned a Maroon and Gold uniform.
Trevor Mbakwe made his return to the court Friday night against American University.
For Mbakwe, tonight's game was his first since tearing the ACL in his right knee during an 86-70 loss to Dayton on Nov. 27, 2011. The wait for Walker's return has been even longer, as he had not played for the Gophers since tearing the posterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee versus South Dakota State on Dec. 23, 2010.
The 6-foot-8 Mbakwe entered the game to a rousing ovation with 7:59 remaining in the first half. He played 14 minutes, finishing with four points, three rebounds, two steals, and two blocked shots. And, for those who stayed around long enough, Mbakwe's alley-oop dunk on an assist from Chris Halvorsen with 1:39 left in the game might have been the highlight of the night.
A potential National Basketball Association draftee, Mbakwe hopes to return to the form he displayed during his junior season and in the first seven games last season. He led the Big Ten in rebounding as a junior, pulling down 10.5 boards per game to go along with a scoring average of 13.9 ppg. Last year, he earned preseason all-Big Ten honors and was averaging 14.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest before the injury.
Walker is an imposing presence at 6-foot-10, 289 pounds. He averaged 3.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game during the 12 games he played in 2010-11.
Like Mbakwe, he entered the game to an extended roar from the crowd of 10,172, and he saw limited action. Walker scored four points, grabbed a pair of rebounds, dished out an assist, and blocked a shot during his nine minutes on the floor.
Mbakwe commented after the game about how fun it was to have Big Mo back on the court.
"It was great. He's been working hard for the last year and a half," Mbakwe said. "I'm happier about his comeback than mine. He's been through a lot. It was great to see him out there, the crowd gave him a big ovation and he's going to be big for us this year."
As for his own return, and how long it might take him to get back to full strength, Mbakwe added, "I don't know, I think it's just a confidence thing, trusting my knee, and knowing that the doctors did a great job. I think now, conditioning is the biggest part. My knee is fine, it doesn't hurt at all."
If that's the case, Gophers fans are going to be happy campers this season.
Fresh off of a 23-win season, the Gopher Men's basketball team hopes its depth will help them through a tough non-conference schedule and a brutal Big Ten schedule.
This season, the Gophers return most of their team from the 2011-2012 campaign. On the roster this year, at least 13 out of the 15 on the roster saw minutes at some point last year.
Some of the key returners from last year's NIT Finalist team include sophomore point guard Andre Hollins, junior point guard Austin Hollins, sophomore forward Joe Coleman, senior forward Rodney Williams, and sixth year senior Trevor Mbakwe.
Gophers Head Coach Tubby Smith says the depth of his team is something he hasn't had in a few years.
Point guard Andre Hollins figures to be a key cog for the Gophers this season.
"We've got good depth--that is one thing I'm excited about," Smith said. "Depth though is only good if you have everybody available to you. That's been one of our problems over the last two years. We haven't had everyone available to us."
Last season, the Gophers depth was depleted early in the season when Mbakwe and red-shirt sophomore forward Maurice Walker went down with knee injuries.
While both Walker and Mbakwe are expected to be back at the start of the season, Mbakwe was having a career year when he went down.
Mbakwe was leading the team in scoring with 14 points per game when he went down just seven games into the season. He says he expects to be ready at the start of the year.
"The knee is doing great," Mbakwe said on media day. "I expect to play the first game. The knee is getting stronger by the day. Our staff has done a great job with slowly, putting me back into the lineup and with the team. I feel comfortable."
The Gophers depth will be key early-on. The schedule features tough road tests in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup at Florida State and a December trip to the University of Southern California.
The Gophers will also take part in the in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. The Gophers will play Duke in their first game. The tournament also features teams like Memphis, Louisville, Stanford and Missouri among others.
The Big Ten schedule could be even tougher. There are five teams from the Big Ten featured in the USA Today Preseason Coaches' poll. Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State are in the top-five alone. In what will be a tough schedule for the Gophers, the team will rely on its senior leadership.
Among those returning is Rodney Williams. With a solid year this year, Williams could become only the sixth player in Gopher history to score 1,000 points, haul down 500 rebounds and dish out 200 assists. Williams believes the team can make a run in the NCAA tournament this year.
"I definitely think we can be a Sweet 16 team at least. We're a real deep team," Williams said. "We got a lot of guys at every position that are really good, so I think we're going to be a team to be reckon with this year."
American University head coach Jeff Jones and the Eagles travel to Williams Arena Friday.
From time to time during the 2012-13 season Gophersports.com basketball beat writer Jeff Fett will check in with someone that is close to the Gophers upcoming opponent. Can't get any closer that American head coach Jeff Jones. Jones has been at the helm at American for 12 seasons and has won a program-leading 202 games. We asked Coach Jones several questions about his team, and what he hopes to accomplish against Minnesota and the rest of the year. Please see below:
GopherSports.com: Who are your top returning players and which ones will make your team perform well this year?
Jeff Jones: "Our best returning player is our senior point guard Danny Munoz. He had a real solid year last year and worked very hard in the off-season and has come back. I think he's poised to have a terrific year for us and he's going to be vitally important in anything that we do.
"Our starting center from last year returns, (6'10", junior) Tony Wroblicky. When you look at his numbers from his sophomore year, you know its not real impressive, but down the stretch his statistics were on the upward trend, and so I think he's going to have a good year for us.
"A player who's returning, but wasn't on the team last year, was Stephen Lumpkins. He was a second-team All-Patriot league player two years ago. He averaged 14 and eight I think. Last year, he was in the Kansas City Royals organization as a pitcher, so he didn't play basketball for a year. He's kind of picked up where he left off. You certainly don't see any rust in his game and we're going to need him to be a big factor for us as well.
"So these would be the top three. You know for our league, for Minnesota, its no big deal, or for a Big Ten school, but for our league, having a 6'10"- a 6'9" guy in the lineup at the same time, that's a pretty big front line."
GopherSports.com: What kind of style do you play?
Jeff Jones: "I would say moderate. Offensively, if the break is there, we'll certainly explore those opportunities, but we certainly don't want to get into a real fast paced game. We prefer more deliberate than break-neck speed. A majority of the time, we're going to run a lot of sets and try to see if we can create shots through our offense."
GopherSports.com: What do you hope to accomplish in your first game of the year against Minnesota?
Jeff Jones: "As far as the game against Minnesota, you know, the simple goal is we want to try to win the game. Short of that, we want to play as well as we can. We want to learn from the opportunity. Whoever the Patriot League team is, the way you go to the NCAA tournament, you're going to be playing somebody like Minnesota or Kansas or Georgetown or other teams that are on our schedule, so you want to try to play against that top competition.
"Obviously, our guys are well aware of the late season stretch that Minnesota put on. They're young, but experienced and they virtually have everyone coming back. They're fully aware of that, but I think you know for us, it's something that our guys can be excited about because they've read about and watched on TV about Minnesota and they know for us to have any chance, we've got to play extremely well."
GopherSports.com: What makes you schedule tough teams like Minnesota, Kansas and Georgetown?
Jeff Jones: "We want to challenge ourselves. I'm a big believer of it. I've been doing this a long time. I've known Tubby for 25 years. Norwood Teague, the AD there, is one of my very best friends. We used to work together at the University of Virginia.
"We always want to challenge ourselves. That's the way you get better. Going up against programs the likes of Minnesota, Kansas or Georgetown, that helps you prepare to be the best team we possibly can by the time conference play rolls around.
"We've beaten DePaul, Florida State. We've beaten Maryland. You know every once in a while, you can pull off that upset. You know in order to do that, we've got to be a little bit lucky. We've got to play really, really hard and we've got to play really, really well."
GopherSports.com: What are your goals for your team in the Patriot League?
Jeff Jones: "Our goals for the year are to win the Patriot League and be playing our best basketball at the end of the year. The Patriot League is a one bid league, so you've got to be ready for the tournament and see if you can win that title and participate in the NCAA tournament.
"I certainly hope we can be in the top half (of the conference). For the last 12 years, since American has been in the Patriot League, we've never finished below fourth. We've been probably over a decade the most consistent team in the Patriot League, and that's something that we've prided ourselves on, that year in and year out, we want to be in the picture. We want to be competitive for that Patriot League title.
"You know this year, I believe we were picked third in a lot of preseason polls, you know, we'll see. Bucknell and Leigh are in the top two right now and on paper, are clearly the two best teams, but the great thing about athletics is that the competitions are played on the court and you know we'll get a chance to work hard and improve. When conference play rolls around, you know hopefully we can handle that gap and be a factor in the conference picture."
GopherSports.com: Anything else about American University you want Minnesotans to know?
Jeff Jones: "We're a small school in Washington, D.C. People hear Washington, D.C. and I think often times they think in terms of an urban setting, but it's a very small, but a very nice traditional campus. We're up here in the northwest and it's a great situation."